Self-Driving Car Industry has a PR Problem

For the driverless car industry, last year was a boon for technology breakthroughs- and a disaster from a public relations perspective.

An experimental Uber driverless car ran over and killed a woman walking her bicycle across an Arizona highway. The vehicle’s “safety driver” was presumably otherwise engaged.

Then, a US Senate bill that would have opened the (garage) door for hundreds of thousands of robot cars on American highways stalled, due, in part, to safety concerns.

At the same time, industry leader Waymo announced it was slowing the roll-out of its long-planned driverless taxi service near Phoenix, choosing instead to limit the service to several hundred handpicked customers and- in a move that seems to defeat the purpose- keep human engineers inside the car. It wasn’t long before the New York Times revealed Waymo vehicles were being attacked with rocks and knives.

Capping off the year with his characteristic flair, Tesla Chief Executive Elon Musk took it upon himself to appear on “60 Minutes” driving down a Silicon Valley highway behind the wheel of a Model 3. In the clip, he grins as he holds his hands in the air, asserting that the vehicle can drive itself. Critics were quick to point out that Tesla’s Autopilot is not, in fact, driverless technology, and that several people have been killed by using the technology improperly. Tesla’s own user manual instructs drivers to keep both hands on the wheel.

The industry, from a PR perspective, is floundering.

Enter, then, the Partners for Automated Vehicle Education (PAVE), a consortium of firms that includes in its ranks carmakers Audi, General Motors, Volkswagen, Toyota and Daimler; driverless technology companies Waymo, Cruise, Aurora and Zoox; and computer chip makers Intel, Nvidia and Mobileye.

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PAVE’s self-proclaimed goal is to “bring realistic, factual information to policymakers and the public,” in the hopes that a better educated public will smooth the road ahead for the adoption of self-driving technology.

“We want to make sure that consumers and policymakers understand what’s real, what’s possible and what is rumor or speculation,” says Brad Stertz, head of government affairs in the US for Audi.

Others, however, are not as easily convinced. “A corporate coalition of technology profiteers claiming to focus on safety is akin to the tobacco companies telling us they have a safer way to deliver nicotine,” says Jack Gillis, executive director of the Consumer Federation of America.

Still other detractors say advocates for the industry should focus on improving actual safety, and adding safety technology to conventional vehicles, rather than focus on ”lobbying without lobbying”.

“Effective, advanced technologies are available today including automatic emergency braking, lane departure warning and blind-spot detection,” says Cathy Chase, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, “However, these technologies are typically only available in high-end models or expensive trim packages.”

Whatever the outcome, one thing is clear: if the industry is to have any success in the year ahead, a PR revamp should be a priority, not a sideshow.

-Ronn Torossian is the CEO and Founder of 5WPR.

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Ronn Torossian is the founder and CEO of 5W Public Relations, one of the largest independently-owned PR firms in the United States. With over 20 years of experience crafting and executing powerful narratives, Torossian is one of America's most prolific and well-respected Public Relations professionals. Since founding 5WPR in 2003, he has led the company's growth, overseeing more than 175 professionals in the company's headquarters in midtown Manhattan. With clients spanning corporate, technology, consumer and crisis, in addition to digital marketing and public affairs capabilities, 5WPR is regularly recognized as an industry leader and has been named "PR Agency of the Year" by the American Business Awards on multiple occasions. Throughout his career, Torossian has worked with some of the world's most visible companies, brands and organizations. His strategic, resourceful approach has been recognized with numerous awards including being named the Stevie American Business Awards 2020 Entrepreneur of the Year, the American Business Awards PR Executive of the Year, twice over, an Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year semi-finalist, Metropolitan Magazine's Most Influential New Yorker, and a 2020 Top Crisis Communications Professional by Business Insider. Torossian is known as one of the country's foremost experts on crisis communications, and is called on to counsel blue chip companies, top business executives and entrepreneurs both in the United States and worldwide. Torossian has lectured on crisis PR at Harvard Business School, appears regularly on CNN & CNBC, was named to PR Week's "40 under Forty" list, is a contributing columnist for Forbes and the New York Observer, and his book, "For Immediate Release: Shape Minds, Build Brands, and Deliver Results With Game-Changing Public Relations" is an industry best-seller. A NYC native, Torossian lives in Manhattan with his children. He is a member of Young Presidents Organization (YPO), and active in numerous charities.